Let’s do this again.
It’s Hamilton vs. Ahwatukee next Saturday afternoon for that darned golden ball, a Division I state championship game between the Huskies and newcomers Mountain Pointe that has every bit the potential for being epic. Given Hamilton’s dominance in recent years, when was the last time we thought that before a big-school championship game?
Not last year. The Huskies beat up Desert Vista in the regular season, were loaded with talent and title-game experience and the Thunder were newbies to Glendale’s spaceship stadium. Of course, we know how that turned out.
Not in 2011. The Huskies were still significant favorites against a reconstructed Desert Ridge team, and the Huskies were figured to swallow up the Jaguars’ prolific running attack. Of course, Hamilton won, but it was anything but a runaway. The Huskies were big favorites in 2009 against feel-good Mesa.
Perhaps it was 2008 against Brophy when there was this close of a pregame, prospective matchup.
May the better running team win. Both teams are well-versed in the running game. Mountain Pointe has one of the best offensive lines in the state with Kenny Lacy and Natrell Curtis, and a two-headed monster in Garette Craig and Thomas Warren (combined 2,600 yards, 40 total touchdowns). The passing game with southpaw junior Antonio Hinojosa, Jalen Brown, Craig and Dejhon Edwards is where the Pride can also make some hay. Brown set a school record with 18 touchdown catches but will have a tough time against Cole Luke and the Huskies secondary. It all starts with running the ball, whether the line can protect and Hinojosa can fight through the nerves and wide-eyedness and make good decisions. Hamilton’s offense is equally capable running the ball with Kevin Walters, Luke, Frankie Felix and some designed runs for quarterback AJ Thigpen. The Huskies get dangerous with their speed and deception when the running game works, as evidenced by Thigpen’s 58-yard clinching touchdown run on a QB keeper because Desert Ridge flew to the running back on the fake, but Huskies coach Steve Belles felt the offense didn’t show up in Friday’s semifinal win over Desert Ridge (he’s right). It’s often been a struggle for Hamilton’s passing game when the deep ball is covered off play-action and Thigpen has been corraled in the pocket while unable to escape running. If given time, Izzy Simpson and Tyler Eggers can be playmakers for Hamilton’s receiving corps.
Advantage: Mountain Pointe
Stalemate here and where both teams bread its butter. Hamilton’s front four is active, led by Qualen Cunningham and Ethan Hendricks. The linebackers are outstanding with Santana Sterling and Luke Parrish. The secondary is top-notch, led by do-everything Luke and Levi Sterling (Santana’s twin brother, though based on size you’d never know it) and Jalen Jenkins. Desert Ridge showed even a solid ground game will eventually get eaten up by the Huskies’ speed and tackling without any threat of a passing game. Mountain Pointe’s defense might actually be faster, with the Payne boys (Wesley and Landry) and Travonn White more than capable of wreaking havoc, and of course, Jalen Brown in the secondary. Charlie Trevino has bee solid at linebacker and the Pride are tough to move up front because of their size along the defensive line. Hamilton might try counter plays and quick changes of direction to slow Mountain Pointe’s pursuit.
Mountain Pointe has been solid most of the season in the kicking and return games in not allowing the big play, as White does most of the punt return duties and Craig on kickoffs. Ryan Sheehan kicked the game-winning field goal against Hamilton in the Pride’s Week 2 win over Hamilton, though there have been a couple periods of problems for Mountain Pointe on special teams this season. One of the lost parts of Hamilton’s win against Desert Ridge on Friday was the Huskies ability to pin the Jaguars deep in their own territory. Thigpen and the offense struggled mightily but his punts were outstanding in distance and height to allow the return team time to get down field. And whether the Pride want to kick to Luke remains to be seen, though doing so is not often a good decision.
It’s water-cooler talk, and thus, often meaningless come kickoff, but let’s throw it out there anyway. Both teams are going to empty the playbook, a trick play or two is likely to emerge. Both teams are very well-coached. Hamilton has what it calls “unfinished business” after last year’s title game debacle against an Ahwatukee school, and you can bet the checking account that Hamilton will go back to work and change a few things up not only from the first meeting (Hamilton’s offense is better than it was in Week 2, even if it didn’t show Friday night) and from Friday’s offensive M.I.A. Mountain Pointe, too, will try and play the “everyone-takes-Hamilton” card and the Pride have never played in this atmosphere (which doesn’t feel like such a big deal after what Desert Vista did last year). Whichever team doesn’t turn the ball over or commit 10 penalties has the best chance. Half the time, it’s a big play or two from someone unheralded who becomes a hero.
See why this could be epic?
Mountain Pointe defense: Brophy stars Tyler Bruggman, Devon Allen and Marche Dennard were all hobbled, but the Pride defense still played extremely well. The secondary suffocated the Broncos passing game and the team held Brophy to 134 total yards of offense and forced two turnovers. Another similar performance and the Pride could very well be the Division I state champions.
Desert Ridge: It wasn’t the result the Jaguars were looking for, but the team went toe-to-toe with Hamilton until midway through the fourth quarter. If Desert Ridge could have gotten some points from inside the 10 late in the first half, it would have had a lead at intermission despite the absence of running back J.J. Husar and quarterback Tarek Morrison. The Jaguars lost Jordan Becerra, Joey Counts and Parker Rasmussen after last year’s semifinal berth, but made it just as far this season with a new ensemble. Desert Ridge isn’t a gimmick anymore. It is one of the best programs in Division I.
Drama: While none of the semifinal games went down to the wire, all were within a touchdown at the half. More importantly, the matchup between Mountain Pointe and Hamilton seems like a heavyweight fight waiting to happen. The Pride won the regular season matchup and has the talent to challenge the Huskies. We’re all used to Hamilton being the heavy favorite in title games, but this year should be different.
Marcos de Niza: The Padres had a chance to make it back to the state championship game but could never put it together in the semifinals, losing 35-21 to Ironwood Ridge. Marcos de Niza had more talent than the 2009 title team but fell a game short of reaching that spot. It was a solid season overall, but the expectations have gone up for the Padres in recent years and the team didn’t finish with the ultimate goal of a state title.
Offense: Brophy, Hamilton, Marcos de Niza and Desert Ridge combined to score only six offensive touchdowns on Friday night, and two came as the result of a big punt return and a fumble recovery. The defenses they faced were clearly at the top of their game, and injuries played a big part in Brophy and Desert Ridge’s struggles, but the offenses still could have delivered a little bit more.
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.